Feds may limit protected waterways

By Seth Borenstein
Knight Ridder Newspapers
Seattle Times


WASHINGTON The Bush administration is on the verge of exempting more than one-third of the nation's waterways from federal rules that protect them from pollution, according to environmental and business activists.

Isolated wetlands and smaller streams that occasionally go dry would no longer be protected under the 30-year-old Clean Water Act because the administration is planning to change the definition of protected waterways, the activists say. Details of the proposal being developed by the Environmental Protection Agency are expected to be made public as early as this week.

The waters to be left unprotected "are crucial to the quality of larger waterways," said Bob Perciasepe, senior vice president of the National Audubon Society.

Environmentalists say the administration's expected proposals would allow between 35 percent and 60 percent of the nation's waterways to be polluted, or even filled in, without federal intervention.

Agriculture and real estate interests say state governments would continue to regulate these waterways, but they concede that state rules are generally less burdensome for them than federal standards.

Some say the Bush administration is right in limiting definitions of waterways. "The assertion that every little wet spot in the ground is some ecological crown jewel is simply nonsense," said Jerry Taylor, natural resources director of the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank.

The National Association of Home Builders criticized the "penchant for regulating any kind of activity that would bar a floating water molecule from migrating from Minnesota down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico through a network of culverts, ditches and streams that are dry 10 months out of the year."

The Clean Water Act regulates pollution in "navigable waters," "other waters" and waterways that affect migrating birds. For more than a decade, federal regulators said that the act applied not only to major bodies of water, but also to smaller tributaries that flow into them, and to small patches of "isolated wetlands" distant from large rivers.

Two years ago the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that isolated wetlands were not covered under the act. About 20 to 30 percent of the nation's wetlands fall into this category, Perciasepe said.

One change the EPA is weighing would conclude that "intermittent waterways" streams and creeks that dry up in summer would no longer get federal protection. About 60 percent of the nation's waterways would be affected, according to EPA data.

Ninety percent of North Dakota's 54,373 miles of rivers are considered intermittent, for example. The equivalent figure is 83 percent in Utah, 63 percent in Illinois, 42 percent in Wisconsin, 34 percent in West Virginia and 10 percent in New York. Not all states record such data.

Some of these waterways are important to regional ecology and recreation, said Ken Midkiff, the Sierra Club's chief of water programs.

In the Kansas City area, for example, Indian Creek dries up in September and October, but during spring it flows into the Blue River and eventually into the Missouri River. Kansas officially lists Indian Creek as polluted. The Mulberry River in Arkansas also dries up in late summer, but during spring it is a major whitewater rafting river and flows into Lake St. Louis and the Missouri River.

Farm interests have long fought to rein in waterway legal definitions that "make for pretty tough regulations," said Don Parrish of the American Farm Bureau Federation.

States are better able to regulate pollution in smaller streams because they are closer to the problem, Parrish said. But many states have been reducing environmental enforcement recently because of tightening budgets.

Information from The Associated Press is included in this report.


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